The Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis are making their way onto high school and college campuses across America—but they’re not sneaking in, they’re being invited.
A handful of teachers are allowing these groups into their classrooms in an effort, they say, to expose students to their messages of hate.
It’s a tradition that Worthington Kilbourne High School in Columbus, Ohio, started back in the 1970s for seniors in a class titled “U.S. Political Thought and Radicalism.” The class, which also covers topics such as immigration, environmentalism and abortion, spends a couple of weeks each semester interacting with hate groups, including Topeka, Kan.-based Westboro Baptist Church, the tiny, ardently anti-gay church best known for staging protests at the funerals of American soldiers killed in combat.
“The kids see through their messages,” said David Strausbaugh, who along with Scott DiMauro, teaches the Worthington Kilbourne class. “They know. There’s nobody—nobody—who leaves and says, ‘Boy, we’ve got to join these people.’ That’s why we can bring them in, because we know the kids are going to see them for who they are.”
The Ohio school is not alone. Across the country, other schools also are organizing classes to give students a taste of the message purveyed by hate groups. At Portland State University in Oregon, sociology professor Randy Blazak said he brings in neo-Nazis to talk with his students about the role of extremism in society.
“It’s a good idea to know what’s out there,” Mr. Blazak said. “They’re not monsters. They’re human beings, wrestling with their own issues.”
Despite the hateful messages and ideologies, teachers say their students benefit by hearing directly from these groups. School officials say such classes can teach students critical thinking skills and encourage them to stand up for their beliefs. The classes rank among the most popular with students, who pack classrooms to hear them.
But some students acknowledged being upset when confronting such hateful messages and ideologies in a setting as intimate as a classroom. It’s not uncommon for some students to feel intimidated by these hate groups, particularly minority students who believe they are being discriminated against.
The Ohio school has also invited John Taylor Bowles, a lobbyist for the American Nazi Party, to speak with students several times over the last few years, although he is not on the schedule for the current school year.
On his neo-Nazi blog, Mr. Bowles brags about speaking to an Ohio school, where his message was “well-received” and that some students “even expressed support for the American Nazi Party.”
“Students came up and shook my hand at the end of the class,” Mr. Bowles wrote. “This was the first time in four years that this happened!!!”
Mr. Bowles tried to hide the name of the school and declined to comment, but Mr. Strausbaugh confirmed he spoke to his class at Worthington Kilbourne. He said Mr. Bowles talked to the students about “race wars,” and tried to convince them that America would be at peace if white people would move to the North, black people would move to the South, Jewish people would move to Long Island, and Hispanic people would move to the Southwest.
The hate groups are usually on their “best behavior” when they visit the classrooms, Mr. Strausbaugh said, because they want to “impress the kids.”
“They’re very subtle,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘We don’t hate black people, we just love white people.’ It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what they’re really saying.”
Mr. Blazak acknowledged that inviting hate groups into the classroom could make them appear more plausible and moderate to the students they meet.
“The risk is that they become more legitimate if we give them an audience,” he said. “They are such an outlier, but without the back story, teenagers may see them as just another legitimate political party.”
To prepare his class before the presentations, Mr. Blazak spends nine weeks teaching about the history and beliefs of these hate groups before he brings them into speak to his students.
But no matter how much time Mr. Blazak spends preparing his class to hear from these extremists, he warned that a small number of students still may be drawn to their messages of hate.
“The majority of students will reject them,” he said, “but there will always be that one student who feels alienated and may think that group is a way to give them a sense of power.”
Mr. Strausbaugh said he monitors students throughout the semester to make sure this doesn’t happen.